Thursday, April 27, 2006

A Response to Newsweek's Rabbi Marc Gellman (repost)

[Taken from an earlier blog of mine dated April 27, 2006. Gellman's article is old news by now, but I still run into the sentiment often enough so I thought I'd transfer it to this blog as I'm deleting the old one.]

(For the original article please reference this link:

Dear Mr. Gellman,

Even though I am an atheist, I have often read your column. It was not in the spirit of seeking spiritual comfort or guidance, but it was more that I appreciated your frank and down-to-earth way of commenting on social malaises. More often than not, I'd find myself thinking that you made some very good points. Which is why I was particularly surprised to see this sudden and for the most part arbitrary assault upon atheists. The title of your essay is, "Trying to Understand Angry Atheists: Why do nonbelievers seem to be threatened by the idea of God?" This title proclaims two things in tandem. One, some atheists are angry and said essay documents your attempt to understand some of those angry atheists. Two, all people who do not believe in god are threatened by the very idea.

I found no anecdote to elaborate on what this sudden plague of aggressive atheism is all about. I know that I surely had not heard any whisper of atheist gangs in the streets of a foreign country blowing up people in the name of No God. In fact one doesn't hear a lot about atheists at all in the press. It must be convenient to proselytize over the heads of those who have no public forum to protest lies or ill-use in the popular media. As for number two, a non-believer is not necessarily an athiest. Agnostics are people who aren't sure yet and refuse to take a stance on the issue do to that uncertainty. Atheists are people who not only don't believe in your god, atheists actively believe that god does not exist.

Not only this, but there are a lot of different breeds of atheism, probably not as many as there are of christianity. There are atheists who believe in ghosts. There are communist-atheists. There are capitalist-atheists. There are asian, american, european, and african atheists. There are jewish atheists, like Einstein. Or perhaps I should say he was an athiest of jewish decent to avoid confusion over that issue. There are atheists who believe in new-age spiritulism, although whether they are truly atheists is a matter of sincere doubt for me. It seems to me that they merely substitute a lot of lesser deities in place of one. I, personally, don't believe in any of the systems which apologetically bow their heads over the matter of their own beliefs. So, perhaps you could call me a pure atheist.

I simply believe that no spiritual or supernatural entities exist. Period. No strings attached. And yet I still don't see where you draw the conclusion that many atheists are angry. Maybe you're just grouping us all in together. I guess I can see how that could be a little irksome. But then again, I've never heard of rampaging hoards of atheists killing each other, or rioting. That can't be said for jews, christians or muslims. That's for sure. Well, that's just what I found wrong with your title. Perhaps we should move on to the body of your essay.

As an atheist, perhaps I can help you understand us better. Perhaps, I may also be able to help you understand why atheists might occasionally be angered by religious people. In point of fact, your commentary on atheism is exactly the kind of thing that makes atheists angry. But, in the interest of being civil (particularly as you allude to atheists being mostly uncivil), I will simply expose the inflammatory rhetoric you chose to use to describe people like me.

I will admit that as an athiest, I occasionally get a little tired of the "patient sympathy" that religious people cast one's way. But as you say, everyone who has a certain belief system does that to everyone else who has a different one. They smile through their teeth at you as they think about how you will suffer in the afterlife. Except that atheists don't believe in an afterlife, so we wouldn't be thinking that. Plus one for atheist civility, eh? Or is that just a minus from religion's side? I'm not sure, especially since you didn't state exactly how it was that you came to your conclusion of atheists being uncivil.

For the most part, in my experience, atheists also "have no desire to debate or convert" religious people either. But then again, perhaps you just think it's uncivil to catch someone out in a lie. Or to be angered when you state that you "have no desire to debate or convert" atheists, but then come around and tell them how "religion must be an audacious, daring and, yes, uncomfortable assault on our desires to do what we want when we want to do it."

You claim you "don't know many religious folk who wake up thinking of new ways to aggravate atheists." I don't know many atheists who wake up thinking of ways to aggravate religious people either. And yet, here I am writing a reply to an editorial slap in the face published in a mainstream American magazine.

I suppose if I lived next door to "evangelical christians" I might be annoyed if they came over every Sunday to invite me to church. But I can't say that most atheists would become angered by their mere presence. I do find religion distasteful, in that it appears to me an arcane practice bound helplessly in the mire of superstition, ignorance, and feudal power hierarchies. But I suppose most religious people also take atheists for either being abused, ignorant, or destructive. Hence the "patient sympathy" with which we usually gaze upon each other.

Although I have to say that the guy who would shout on the university commons about how we were all going to hell only earned my disgust and contempt. There is a common bond between people, something of which we are all aware I think. Namely, that we must all struggle to come to terms with our faith, lack , and/or negations of it. It's something we all must do, and it is a distinctly private and personal journey. Which is why it is so offensive when someone tries to foist their belief onto you, or belittle it with vague rhetoric and generalization. But missionaries are different than normally religious people in that it is quite possible to live and work peacefully with people who think differently. Understanding it is a profoundly personal journey is the crucial difference between peaceful coexistence and angry bickering. The principle is that they don't preach to me, and I don't preach to them. I think most atheists are of that same opinion, which is why atheists do not have weekly columns in major papers decrying god. The one exception is when we are called on to defend ourselves. Something which is generally unnecessary unless attacked, trivialized, or summarily dismissed in a public forum.

I quote, "This must sound condescending and a large generalization, and I don't mean it that way, but I am tempted to believe that behind atheist anger there are oftentimes uncomfortable personal histories." It must sound that way because it is condescending and a large generalization. And, yes, you most certainly did mean it that way. The intent is to cast atheism as a running away from or shutting out of god. It is not. It is simply the belief that god does not exist. And there are as many reasons for a person to believe that as there are for a person to believe in god. It is a distinctly personal quest, and to generalize it as a reactionary impulse is terribly dehumanizing. It is as though we can have no benefit of cognition but by the grace of god. Whatever these "angry atheists" actually did write to you will remain a mystery I suppose, as you could not lay down one example, point, or argument to explain what made them appear so angry.

I appreciate that you would be willing to apologize for the sake of abuses of authority among religious leaders. However, it is not atheists towards which your apology should be directed. It is towards the believers who were abused and taken advantage of. Like I said before, an atheist is not an atheist because of what any man does. An atheist is an atheist because that person believes that no gods exist. To classify it as a purely reactionary belief is not civil in my honest opinion.

Once again I quote, "all religions must teach a way to discipline our animal urges, to overcome racism and materialism, selfishness and arrogance and the sinful oppression of the most vulnerable and innocent among us." I agree wholeheartedly with this sentiment. Taken by itself, there is nothing objectionable about it. However taken in the contest of your rant on atheism, it implies that atheists are racist, materialist, selfish, arrogant, and are all child molesters. I am beginning to understand why you know so many angry atheists. Or perhaps you think it's uncivilized to get angry when somebody calls you those things.

I quote again, "But our world is better kinder and more hopeful because of the daily sacrifice and witness of millions of people over thousands of years." If you were saying that people, regardless of belief in god or no, are responsible for staving off the encroachment of anarchy and entropy which invariably try to grapple with any civilzation; that they have made our society more compassionate; and that they have preserved that which is best and most noble through tireless work and sacrifice, then I would once again agree. But your next line states that you are referring only to people who are "called to a level of goodness and sacrifice so constantly and patiently by a loving but demanding God..." So you must once again mean that atheists have done nothing to make the world better, kinder, or more hopeful. How can such a vision not be seen as a "red flag"? According to your own words, not only are atheists inhumane monsters, but they haven't done anything whatsoever to contribute to a more humane world. Once again, I can understand why some people may take offense at that.

I would also like to take exception with your arbitrary grouping of all atheists as devotees of Camus. While Camus was an atheist, he was also an existentialist, and in many ways a nihilist. These are not automatically equivalent terms. A person can be an atheist and not an existentialist at the same time. Apparently, you do need to understand atheists better. No where is this evidenced as clearly as when you say, "I can agree to make my peace with atheists whom I believe ask too little of life here on planet earth..." If we don't believe that there is a life after the one on planet earth, just how does that imply that we don't make as much, if not more, productive use of our time here as you do? In my opinon, I am going to die and that's it. That means that if I want to get anything done, I'd better get on the ball. Mainly because there is no second chance, there is no fix-it-all solution in the sky.

The final disgusting stab, was the implication that most atheists somehow want girls to dumb themselves down to find boyfriends. I think your friend Dr. James Watson is admirable for speaking to those girls about their futures. But your final coup de grace, "Now there's an atheist I can believe in," implies that all the rest of us would rather have those girls barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen. How do you get off implying that atheists have such pent-up animosity that the majority would refuse to help children find their path in life?

I hope I have explained adequately just what it is about your attitude that understandably angers atheists. Of course, it's not like these kind of lies and innuendo are anything new. In a country which prides itself on being open to all beliefs, the most casually discriminated against is atheism. All because the majority is religious. I have one final note of protest in response to the latent insinuation that religion is somehow a great civilizer and protagonist of culture. Namely, that it isn't true. Governments which contain highly religious populations tend to be statistically more chaotic, unsafe, and hostile than predominantly secular nations. If you don't believe me, look at this fine piece of statistical research done by Gregory S. Paul.

An atheist who is most definitely not racist, materialistic, selfish, arrogant, and an oppressor of the most vulnerable and the most innocent among us.

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